Today’s magi are young and worldly wise, but naïve about Christ
By Mark Coppenger | While a 60-year-old church planter in a university town just north of Chicago, I had at least one big personal question: Why would college students come to a basement rental space to hear a balding, overweight preacher who was often the only one in the service wearing a tie? At least I knew it wasn’t my effort to “dress for success,” which used to mean gray slacks, a blue blazer, rep tie, and such, but had come to mean work jeans and an untucked shirt. The best I could tell, sartorial and tonsorial factors were not much in play.
And lest you have the impression that I was some sort of maven at reaching Millennials, I should hasten to say that a lot of them stayed away, and a lot of them who gave us a look never came back. As the old joke goes, “We had three decisions on Sunday. One was for God, and two were against.” I think that goes with the territory when you preach “the whole counsel of God” in an age when feelings, relativism, and political correctness rule.
In our 11 years in Evanston reaching out to the Northwestern University campus, our church plant grew about five per year in average attendance, ending with about 55 a week. Of course, college communities are very fluid, and we’d regularly have our heart broken by graduations, where we’d lose a chunk of our treasure. But we labored on in joy and with some fruitfulness, and today we take great satisfaction as seeing our former parishioners on the mission field in Germany, India, and China; as Christian faculty at such universities as Maryland and North Carolina; in corporate positions from New York to San Francisco; in military service bands, medicine, the urban classroom, magazine staffs, NASA consultancies, symphony orchestras, etc.
Many of these folks were already walking with the Lord, and we simply had the privilege of walking with them on a segment of their journey. But some were also coming in from the pagan pool. Some were old guys—one was an aging veteran of Iwo Jima who was concerned with “studying for finals”; another was a middle-aged Baha’i, who wanted a chance to bone up on one of the many faiths they somehow embraced.
All this being said, here are some things that come to mind about our linkup with Millennials, many of whom were not believers when we met them.
They’re seeking a way out
First, let me say that in the talk about “seekers” and “seeker-friendly churches,” we see something of a duel between those who point to Romans 3:11 (“there is no one who seeks God”) and Jeremiah 29:13 (“You will seek me and you will find me, when you seek me with all your heart”).
The former say that the lost have little or no appetite for the true God, at least until he intervenes in their hearts. The latter emphasize the human will and point to cases, whether biblical (John 12:21), historical, or contemporary, in which people did, indeed, come looking for the Lord.
Of course, this leaves open the question of why they were looking. (For what it’s worth, I’m persuaded that the overarching answer is that God puts it in their hearts to seek him, and they’re not really seeking him until he does this.)
I think it’s fair to say that most of our seekers were looking more for a door out of their current spiritual situation than for one into the Kingdom of Christ. They’d made a mess of their lives or come up empty in one way or another. They were unlucky in love, academics, employment; depleted and damaged by addictions, sexual sin; exhausted by the grind, betrayed by friends, marginalized by the culture and such, and they were willing to try something new. So they weren’t so much homing missiles intent on pursuing the righteousness of God, as they were anxious travelers thrashing about in the woods, spotting a cabin light in the distance and walking toward it.
Some were happy to join in the life of the cabin, glad to receive the mercies and life of the one who had invited those who were “weary and heavy laden” to come to him for rest. But others soon got cabin fever and sought the exit.
They loved the warmth and camaraderie and words of grace and love, but they couldn’t abide the language of Zion or imposition of the biblical prerogatives, and so, after warming their hands at the hearth, they plunged back into the darkness. There were, for instance, those who couldn’t or wouldn’t give up their intimate co-habitation without benefit of marriage. If they had been looking for the true God, they would have stayed, but they were only interested in trying out a new drug.
I was struck by the testimony of one of our Chinese students that her father had urged her to check out Christianity since it seemed connected with human and economic wellbeing. He wanted her to get a fix on what those Christian birds were up to that made them fly so high.
For those who had a heart to stay, we made a way for them to grow “in wisdom and stature and favor with God and man.” For the others—the rich young rulers, if you will—they’d had a look at what discipleship meant, like it or not.
Despite what the critics say, the church still has a lot of cachet, and we should expect people to give us a look if only to figure out, “What is it with those guys?”
Spiritual nomads need roots
Fewer and fewer young adults come from gratifying homes, and those that do so miss what they had when they move away. Either they don’t much know what a family is supposed to look like, or they long for a substitute. And that’s where the church can come in big time.
In Evanston, Sharon and I were empty nesters for most of our years as a church-planting couple, so we had a lot of freedom to connect in fatherly/motherly (or grandfatherly/grandmotherly) ways. We’d go to their plays, recitals, sporting events, and such, taking photos, making over them at receptions, and basking in the moments of their achievement.
I remember one night at a club in Rogers Park, we went to hear a group called the Blind Anabaptist Blues Band, formed by one of our Northwestern students. They performed in all sorts of venues, high and low, in the Chicago area. They offered a mix of secular and sacred music, the lead singer with something of a Bob Dylan/Tom Waits sound. That night they led with several of their “worldly” numbers (e.g., “Girl With Gin on Her Lips”), but then, 20 minutes or so into the set, they gave a straightforward rendition of an old hymn.
You might think this would come off like fingernails on the blackboard, for overnight hookups were shaping up at the bar, pitchers of beer sloshed everywhere, and a lesbian couple had taken to the dance floor in front of the band. But a sweet reverence came over the room, with strangers mouthing some of the words, and with, perhaps, a tear or two at this or that table.
Perhaps they remembered the days when their mommy took them to Sunday school, they sang in the youth choir, or they sat on the back row of some church, barely attentive to what was going on, but with their young impressionable minds absorbing those gospel strains. So we need to be careful about throwing old stuff under the bus, for it may well be a linkage point.
What they know, what they don’t
I may have this all wrong, but I don’t think the current young adults read or learn as much background material as we Boomers did. I’ve seen several studies showing that, in high school and college, they’re writing fewer and fewer term papers.
They’re juiced with music in their ear buds, tweeted to insensibility, selfie’d into the third celestial ring of narcissism, and often remindful of the French, who after their 18th-century revolution, started the calendar all over again, declaring themselves the founders of a new age, no longer beholden to the BC/AD business.
So while you may stumble on syncing your iPhone or some other item of technological arcana, you know who Lottie Moon was, how William Carey fought widow burning in India, what turned Wales upside down in 1904, how ‘Messiah’ and ‘Christ’ connect with oil, the connection between Nineveh and Mosul, and what difference Mordecai Ham and William Randolph Hearst made to Billy Graham.
Today’s seekers don’t. Of all the people in that list, they may not even know Billy Graham. They may know a lot of stuff, but they’ve missed a lot of important stuff their filters have kept them from learning.
These are folks who’ve been brainwashed in the paralyzing ideology of political correctness and overweening sensitivity, ever alert to the “gotcha,” by which they’ll lose their social standing, if not more.
They know that “Islam is a religion of peace,” that “gay is okay,” and any number of other secular pieties. They learn that the greatest sin is perceived intolerance (a foolish conviction exposed in Allen Bloom’s “The Closing of the American Mind”), and they’ve likely joined in the witch burnings of those designated “phobic” in one way or another.
But there you are, speaking the plain language of the Bible, whether the exclusivity of Christ, the reality of sin and hell, male headship in the home, and the sanctity of marriage and unborn human life. “You can’t say that!” they say.
“Oh, really,” I respond. “Well, here it goes again.”
Sure, some will stomp out grumbling, but others will be intrigued by the spectacle and stick around to see what the fundie mine sweeper will set off next as he covers his ears and goes lumbering through the fields of biblical teaching.
Some veteran missionaries in our church introduced “storying” for internationals, working off graphic wall hangings replete with Bible scenes, from Genesis to maps. The non-Christian Asian students were particularly receptive. (And, in this connection, I’ve really enjoyed my work at biblemesh.com—“One God. One Book. One Story.”)
I think stories in the form of illustration can also take sermons to a higher level. Some call them “raisins in the oatmeal.” Whatever. I know Jesus used them a lot, in the form of parables. And I know they connect powerfully—and legitimately, if they serve the task of true exposition.
Culture also offers opportunities to connect with Millennials. They’ve been taught to stereotype “fundamentalists” or “chauvinists” or whatever class of vermin is au courant, and they may be queuing up for their own Mizzou protest or Wall Street grump-in according to the demands of the professionally offended. After all, thanks to the modern university, Millennials are hothouse plants, oblivious to thinkers who don’t fit the school’s suffocating ideological template.
So when you suggest that you prefer Booker T. Washington to W.E.B. Dubois, Edmund Burke to Howard Zinn, or Norman Rockwell’s “Saying Grace” to Matthew Barney’s “Cremaster Cycle,” they have a tough time processing your comments.
You might tell them you prefer poems that rhyme to those that don’t, maybe like the work of Robert Frost and Robert Service. That’ll drive ‘em nuts. But do it with a mischievous smile, letting them know that you don’t wish them harm, and that we’re happily a part of a Divine Comedy, not a Divine Tragedy.
My tactic: unruffledness
With the breakup of the family and society’s precipitous descent into the abyss of relativism, hedonism, narcissism, and even nihilism, we are confronted with all sorts of waywardness and frowardness, and we do well to handle these with unruffledness. Today’s seekers will show up with alarming tattoos, mad theories, “father wounds,” and promiscuities, and we should not think it a virtue to swoon in the face of affronts to holiness.
Let them tell their story and even put on their displays of lawlessness. Then pick up as you can. That’s what Jesus did. He didn’t cover his ears and go “La-La-La-La” when he heard or saw something unpleasant. Unlike Jesus, we realize that we’re all a mess without his touch, and that none of us could endure a moment-by-moment projection of our lives in Times Square.
Don’t flinch from speaking a biblical word to sin, but don’t flinch from ministering to the sinner.
I’ve heard that, and have come to believe that, God honors our efforts even when they seem futile. We knocked on miles and miles of doors in Evanston, held a range of special events in city parks, and did a mass mailing to the city’s residents. In the end, very few came to church as a result. Or I should say, very few of those we contacted came to church. But a lot of others did, from sectors we’d not anticipated.
One congregant was a dear fellow who told the same stories over and over again over lunch, forgetting that he was repeating and repeating himself; another was a new convert from Islam; another was a theater student, working in constant tension with the values of the secular stage and the claims of Christ; yet another was a Messianic Jew who, as a policeman in uniform, dropped in on our services from time to time; another a pastor’s kid from Arkansas.
Call it an application of the “law of sowing and reaping”—that God keeps account of our witness efforts and rewards us with fruit from fields we’d not cultivated. We’d not sought them, but by his grace they sought out us.
Mark Coppenger is professor of Christian apologetics at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, Kentucky. He is former president of Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary and a church planter and pastor in Evanston, Illinois.